Benthic structure and cryptic mortality in a Caribbean mesophotic coral reef bank system, the Hind Bank Marine Conservation District, U.S. Virgin Islands

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Coral reef banks may form an important component of mesophotic coral ecosystems (MCEs) in the Caribbean, but remain poorly explored relative to shallower reefs and mesophotic habitats on slopes and walls. Consequently, the processes structuring mesophotic coral reef communities are not well understood, particularly the role of disturbance. A large and regionally important mesophotic system, the Hind Bank Marine Conservation District (MCD), St. Thomas, USVI, was systematically surveyed. Data were used to construct a comprehensive benthic habitat map for the MCD, describe the abiotic and biotic components of the benthos among habitats, and investigate patterns of coral health among habitats. Two-thirds of the MCD (23.6 km2) was found to be dense coral reef (Coral Cover = 24.1%) dominated by the Montastraea annularis species complex. Coral reef ecosystems were topographically complex, but could be classified into distinct habitat types, including high coral banks (35.8% of the MCD) and two large novel coral reef habitat types corresponding to an extremely flat basin (18%) and a highly rugose hillock basin (6.5%), containing thousands of coral knolls (2–10 m high). An extreme disease event with undescribed signs of mortality occurred on 47% of coral reefs and reached a high prevalence in affected areas (42.4% ± 6.3 SE, N = 26). The disease was significantly clustered in the basin habitats of the western MCD (global Moran’s I = 0.32, P < 0.01). Observations of the spatial pattern suggested that the driver was specific to the basin habitats and may have been caused by a coherent abiotic event.

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We would like to thank the following people and organizations. The Caribbean Fisheries Management Council and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through the USVI Division of Coastal Zone Management (Department of Planning and Natural Resources), provided funding to support fieldwork. The Lana Vento Charitable Trust and the US National Science Foundation, through the VI Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (VI- EPSCoR), contributed valuable infrastructure support and research equipment. C. Joseph gave excellent administrative support. We are also indebted to the field assistance and wisdom of K. Turbe, R. Garcia, M. Carlos, J. Sabater, and K. Brown. We also kindly thank three anonymous reviewers who provided helpful comments that improved the manuscript. All views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the granting agencies and support personnel. This is contribution #54 from the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies at the University of the Virgin Islands.

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Correspondence to T. B. Smith.

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Communicated by Guest Editor Dr. John Marr

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ESM 2. Video of the characteristics and effects of Intercostal Mortality Syndrome. Whole reef and transect views show disease characteristics and the subsequent severe mortality in affected areas. (WMV 11319 kb)

(DOC 56 kb)

ESM 2. Video of the characteristics and effects of Intercostal Mortality Syndrome. Whole reef and transect views show disease characteristics and the subsequent severe mortality in affected areas. (WMV 11319 kb)

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Smith, T.B., Blondeau, J., Nemeth, R.S. et al. Benthic structure and cryptic mortality in a Caribbean mesophotic coral reef bank system, the Hind Bank Marine Conservation District, U.S. Virgin Islands. Coral Reefs 29, 289–308 (2010).

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  • Mesophotic coral ecosystem
  • US Virgin Islands
  • Benthic composition
  • Coral disease
  • Bank reef
  • Refugia